What's your favorite question to ask during an SME interview?

May 16, 2011

A blog reader just asked about the best questions to ask SMEs during an interview. This was too big of a question to answer offline

Do you have any go-to questions you ask with reluctant SMEs? What's your favorite question or technique you use when  your SME is on auto-pilot and giving tired answers? What about ice breakers?

Do you have any favorite questions that course designers should ask?

16 Replies
Rainy Horvath

My favorite question is:  "What are the top three things you expect your learner to be able to DO when they finish this course, and which one is the most important."

Too many times the answer is: " Oh, I don't expect them to DO anything, just know the material."  That opens a whole new set of building challenges.  Informational courses require much more work than task-based ones.

Bob S

Nice topic.

Some old favorties of mine...

  • "If you were king for the day, what two things would you change about the current training offerings/effort?"
  • "If you only had 1 minute of face time, what three things would you tell the learner?"
  • "If you were forced to relate a story about why this is important, what would you say to the learners?"
  • "What do you believe the learners are going want to know more about?"
  • "What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that the learners are under right now?"
  • "Where do you go to learn more about this topic?"

To shake the tree a bit...

  • "How did you learn all this stuff? What part of that experience do you think would be the hardest to replicate for the learners?"
  • "Tell me why this style of training WON"T work"
  • "If you wanted to surprise the learners, what would you do?"
David Anderson

Hey these are great. Thanks! I'll share the link and hopefully some more folks will update.

@Rainy - The million dollar question, right? What do learners need to do? What aren't they doing? What are they doing wrong?

@Christina - I really liked your technique for handling reluctant SMEs. Just curious: Has anyone ever taken you up on it and given you another name? LOL somehow I think I've worked with a few who--given the choice--would have swapped places with another SME. But I guess that's still a win since the first SME wasn't any help.

@Bob - what a great list. I really like "How did you learn this?" I think that's a great example both as an open-ended question and an ice-breaker. Thanks!

@Rob - you lost me at 3 hours But it is a good question because we'll go to dinner for 3 hours, a sports game for 3 hours, fishing for 3 hours... I'm curious how much folks answer that one?

Karen Smith

My favorite, and by far the most important question I ask in SME interviews when doing learning design, is "What's the hardest part of this job." If the SME is a member of the user audience, then it's of THEIR job. If they are a manager/supervisor over the audience who does the job - then it's "What do you think is the hardest part of your team's work?" and "As the manager/supervisor - is there anything you wish this group did BETTER? Didn't do at all? Knew? Habits to unlearn?"

The hard part of the job is often where the most important learning needs are, but until we ask, we often are told what people think we should be building learning exercises around, instead of those places where the real pain points are on the job.

Steve Flowers

The question volley really depends on the type of solution. Here are the six questions (with several sub-questions)  we ask for compliance training:

  • What is the overarching goal of this solution? In other words, when all is said and done, what exactly do you want the learner to do?
  • What is the organizational policy regarding this goal? Is this driven by internal / external mandate?
  • Think about the newest member to the organization. What does this newest member need to know about this topic or goal to align with the organization's objective? Are we building for novices, experts, or somewhere in between?
  • What are the consequences of not performing to standard? What are the rewards for performing to standard?
  • How does this topic / goal relate to the organization's core values and vision?
  • What scenarios or real-life case studies best illustrate proper and improper adherence to policies or rules associated with this goal or topic?

The last question leads into some storytelling exploration. The real value of the SME's knowledge isn't so much in their response to simple yes or no queries or challenges for facts. The real value is in their stories.

Ulises Musseb

We use Competency-based and behavioral interviewing in our organization with everything that requires interviewing. The questions in the model are very specific and based on past experiences handling different projects and/or situations.

Sometimes we ask them to present on a given project, and we ask about their role in it, their level of involvement, and challenges they faced. We don't care much about the presentation skills (unless the job involves facilitation, of course). We've had people who talked about projects that they didn't work on. Which is why...

I ask questions based on our competency model, but the body language, the way they answer the questions and the level of specificity that they have when addressing situations and approach is more telling.

One of my strengths is having a very sharp nonsense detector. I can clearly tell when an answer is scripted, when a story is rehearsed, and/or when they are making things up as they go along. In fact, a person has a better chance with me if he/she states that they have never faced a certain situation I pose, or stating what they would do if they were, than trying to give the answer they think we want to hear.

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